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Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, we are publishing “Warm Blood” by Sharanya Deepak. Sharanya is a writer and editor from and currently in New Delhi, India, and an an editor at Vittles Magazine. In October 2020, she won the Wasafiri new writing Prize for her essay "Seamless.” In 2022-23, she was a fellow at One World Media, and South Asia Speaks. She is currently working on a book of essays. More of her work is on her website.
I am sitting on a footpath near my house in East Delhi. The Delhi Metro, a row of shiny, air-conditioned carriages zips by on a train track above me. My head is in my hands, and in my mind, scorched and blank, I think about how as teenagers, we first watched the slick new trains shuttle through our neighbourhood, pride swelling in our chest.
The memory sets something in motion, and I slowly start to look up, prodded by a young man who stands in front of me.
“Pee lee jiye didi,” he says to me, holding out a bottle of sweet lemonade. “Drink this, sister. Please.” I smile at him, and his face eases into relief. “You scared me!” he says, as he sits down next to me on the ground and tells me that I have been unresponsive for ten minutes. “Zafar” he adds, introducing himself. He takes out two cigarettes and lights them, uttering a silent prayer as he hands one to me and lights the other himself.
As Zafar and I begin to talk, the scene that brought me to the footpath returns like an old memory. Zafar had been watching the scene from across the street. Earlier that morning, I left the house in a rush, resigned to my late start. I hated my job on the other side of the city, but I looked forward the smaller bits of the day — the moment I would fling myself into a motorized rickshaw with others from my neighbourhood; my transit in the women’s coach of the Delhi metro; watching the city’s scenery change from farmland to administrative buildings to malls, like in generic photo-books found in the bags of Western travellers.
Zafar and I recount a large man in a grey SUV who had honked and shouted at passersby on the street, yelling slurs at women crossing their road with children and people dragging pushcarts across the traffic intersection to get to work. He wore a baby-blue shirt, and his chin jutted out from the rest of his face as if glued to its bottom in a hurry. His mother sat on the passenger seat; quiet, unanimated, as if you pierced her suddenly, you would find not blood but sawdust.
I walked up to the man and knocked at his window, Zafar confirms. Politely, I asked him to stop.
“Please don’t shout,” I said to the man in Hindi. “People are moving as fast as they can.”
My words to the man were cautious, polite even, uncharacteristic for exchanges between strangers in my city. But he spat at me when I spoke.
“Chup kar aur nikal yahan say, randi,” he said as he leaned out of the window and brought a hand an inch away from my nose, ready to slap it hard. “Shut up and leave, whore.”
The last thing I remember well is hearing those words, after which I escalated into a frenzy. When I am angry, my eyes become larger and I quiver—as if I am a metal vessel in a pot of boiling water waiting to shoot to the ceiling. I remember the man’s face changing, possibly in response to my own. I abandoned my more considerate accent and came into the one I knew when angriest, its language borrowed from the men that I had loved or hated my whole life.
As Zafar and I talk, more boys join us on the street corner, and Zafar tells them about what happened between me and the man. He tells the boys that I kicked the car’s tyres, after which the man accelerated and sped away.
“Chaunk gaya tha woh aadmi,” he grins. “That man was taken by surprise.”
After a while, I take leave of the boys and walk towards the metro. I am shaking, and I lean on a metal pole on the platform. My head still throbs, so I rest it on the pole, feeling the coldness of the metal seep into my head. I realize that it is not the man in the blue shirt that scares me anymore. It is me. On a scorching day in my city, I have once again frightened myself.
There are stories of me being a precocious child. When I look at old photographs, I find my own face, but a manner I cannot recognize. I have large, peering eyes, and I cling to my mother in every photograph. I am often smiling, sometimes holding my arms out as if inviting someone into them. In the stories, I have a mild, sweet temperament. My mother, the creator of these stories, often does a little skit to confirm them. In the skit, she plays both me at three years old and herself, a young mother of 29, with a husband in a city that were both alien to her at the time.
The skit starts with me waking up. I yawn, and rub my eyes demurely, and smile at the room. I look around the room for my mother and ask in a thin, sweet voice—“Amma, where are you going? Amma, can I come?”
Still playing me, my mother totters around the room we sit in, with a little-girl scamper, putting her feet carefully into small slippers, chattering in quick Tamil, the only language I spoke till I was four, one I cannot speak anymore. She cleans up a jug of fallen milk, recites a rhyme without being prompted. In the skit, I am accommodating, precious, as my mother illustrates, with a high-pitched, slow way of talking and prim hand gestures that she makes as she walks across the room.
“But that was then,” my mother says as she comes back to present time, transitioning cheerily into her own body. “Long time ago,” she adds rakishly to her audience, most often my friends, who shift uncomfortably in their seats as I glare at them, daring them to agree. “But now, baba re, not now. Now, I don’t know what happened. Where did that little girl go?”
Contrary to my mother’s stories of my childhood, I remember feeling alienation and dejection as a child. I recount memories of constant pushback against imposing relatives who decided futures for me and the assumed predisposition for girls like me who are born into dominant caste-families—to be docile and obedient and carry forward a heritage of oppressions into the world.
When I was thirteen years old, I stealthily made my way into a group of boys I knew from afar. Before I befriended them, I would watch from the street corner as fights would break out in our neighbourhood, and the boys, their shirt sleeves rolled up to their elbows, hurled themselves at one another, stepped back, head first, and ran forward, like practiced, elegant dancers in a routine.
To infiltrate the boys’ lives, I wore large t-shirts to hide any bulges in my body. I had to make myself entirely undesirable, obscured of all the signs of femininity they knew. I would become amorphous, I decided, a skulking aspirant to be absorbed among their straddling bodies. I had to choose, even if I missed the company of other girls. Even if I pined for them as I heard them bicker over a poster of a famous film star and discuss the goings-on at school.
When I sneaked into the boys’ clique, I marched with them in unison around our neighbourhood as they made friends with owners of chai stalls and marked territory as their own. I would admire them as they scuttled across the floor, tousling each other’s hair in make-believe combat. I cheered quietly for my favourites in each fight, eating molten chocolate from frizzy metal wrappers. I burned with envy at the way the boys used their bodies to convey their rage. Mine simply stirred in my stomach with nowhere to go.
When the fights ended, I noticed how their tempers flattened and their anger turned to dust. Often, it gave way to other things—like laughter, or hunger, as they swigged glass bottles of Pepsi in theatrical heroism and lit cigarettes and took deep, deserving drags. Invariably, one of the older boys would notice me and order me to leave.
“Bhago yahan say!” they would say, sitting down on the street—always theirs, never mine. “Go home! This is no place for little girls.”
When we were teenagers, my best friend lingered in the chat rooms of angry kids from all over the world. We met at fifteen years old. She wore pins in her ears and neon shoelaces with our black uniform shoes, and I decided to emulate her every step. She transferred to our school from another one, and I remember her walking in. Some of the prettier girls went to bag her as a buddy, a new best friend. Through the first week of school, I watched her as she scratched things into her notebook with attention. She often looked at the things in front of her so menacingly, I thought they would melt.
Her stories delighted me, and I listened carefully when she told me about how she skated around her neighbourhood with her dog, scaring boys away with unlikely weapons like a sturdy water bottle or a crumby old hockey stick.
“I wish we could get out of here,” I remember saying to her as we sat outside our classroom one day. “I wish we just go away.”
That day, she invited me to her house, where she showed me her computer, cloaked by a floral bedsheet. She unveiled it slowly, lifting the sheet up like a magician revealing a trick. She turned it on, and it hummed into existence—a flickering, flat screen, a portal to anywhere else she wanted to be.
She spent most of her time online, in the chat rooms of music fans like herself. I paid close attention when she sat in these rooms writing perfect sentences to these strangers she liked so much.
“Hi Phil. It’s warm in Delhi today. How are you?” she would write politely to her favourite friend, and he sent her a picture of his tattooed face and scrawny arms.
“Hey. U der?” he would reply, as I sat turning on her chair in my wrinkled school skirt, and she made sandwiches with her mother in the kitchen.
“VANI! MESSAGE!” I would scream, harried with curiosity and concern about the person behind these half-words.
Like Phil, these people in the chat rooms were often from small towns in Britain. They had bad fathers and worse governments. I listened to their stories with attention, quickly besotted with these strangers from places far away. They often sent Vani files of songs that I opened, watching them emerge slowly on the screen as she played with her cat. I ran through packs of these videos daily—in which intelligent, pale boys stamped their feet and shouted things and demanded to be understood. They seemed angry, which thrilled me, and I listened to unrecognizable accents into late nights, even as my friend slept.
Every week at her house, I watched videos in which groups of men shouted into microphones to scratching cacophony. I listened to thundering drumbeats, staring at the screen as gangs of people came onto stages and crashed into one another with joy. I watched these concerts for hours, not understanding much of the shrieking accents that screamed into dangling microphones.
But I paid close attention to their rage.
I wished I could shout into microphones like these men, somehow wear my anger with fashion, put it inside a leather jacket, a good sentence, and be part of these steely sounds that had come to rescue us from the lives we knew.
“DUDE,” I wrote to my friend in a text one day, after I had watched another punk concert at her house, where a wiry young man named Ian McKaye sang to a rapt audience with such purpose, it energized me, sitting continents away. “DUDE?? Wouldn’t it be fun to be white?”
When I moved to Western Europe to study in my early twenties, I was often told by well-meaning white women that I was brave from simply being from the place that I was.
“New Delhi?” these women, would say to me, drinking iterations of cheap alcohol they set into nice glasses which they held gracefully with casual, bent wrists. “That is intense. You must be brave. New Delhi. It must be scary, no?” they always said.
In Belgium, where I lived, I found myself in a small town with large entitlement. Unlike the more temperamental climes I was used to, here, the de-facto mode for emotions was calm and non-confrontational; glib versions of curated calm and tranquility stretched for miles at end.
In Belgium, anger was for the news: it had no business entering parties or university gatherings. Anger did not belong in conversation or everyday things. Rage belonged to immigrants; it was a thing to be ghettoized and closed up in neighborhoods of those with origins outside Europe. It was, like these people, meant to be kept at bay. In Belgium, my anger found no bricks to settle on. It lay bare and still, on tables full of strangers who mocked my accent. It moved inside me in buses where young Moroccan men were frequently thrown out by Flemish drivers for having five cents less to ride to work.
Once, in a garden on a sunny day in Brussels, a man I was in love with complained to me about a conversation he had with a woman he said was just like me.
“She just went from one extreme to another!” he said of their conversation about asylum seekers in Europe. “She was so angry. just like you, in fact. She wasn’t making very good points.” Another time, he pointed to a frame that held a photograph of a blonde white couple with photoshopped teeth, telling me that in the end, he desired someone that fit nicely into its square rims. “You would burst out of it,” he nodded at me, poking me in the ribs in the pretense of parody. “All your moods, they wouldn’t fit into a normal life.”
In an email, several years after we stopped speaking, he responded to an essay I wrote, complaining about my anger in it. He complained that he was “tired, as someone, somewhere was always outraged about something.” He put the word outrage in squeamish quotes.
Around him, I boxed in my spurts of temper, turning them to sadness and shame. He convinced me that calmness, objectivity was what make a good person and a woman deserving of love. So I made myself smaller, clenching my teeth and sucking my rage into my stomach like a deflated balloon. I kissed the cheeks of people I disliked around campfires, I kept my opinions to myself when I was asked about my life on this continent. Whenever I locked up my rage, I felt the unease of going against my essential will. I would return to my room with a sense of failure, or cramps in my stomach, as if I had in some way eaten a wrong thing or walked too quickly without catching my breath.
But to remember how a hot mood felt, I surrounded myself with others that manifested it. I searched out neighborhoods of people from countries like my own to live in, where mothers chased sons down the streets with rolling pins, boys shouted at one another in musical squabbles under my window, storming away from one another in fleeting, colorful rage. Often, I saw them only days later, arms linked in reconciliation, as they laughed at something on a phone screen, fresh flatbreads in hand.
I believe that the language of places is moulded by their temperament. I know that slow, smooth talkers come from sunny coastal belts. I can tell when sentences phrased with simultaneous anxiety and confidence reveal people raised in crowded big cities. I enjoy the earnestness in accents moulded by cold, rugged weathers, in places where chat is sometimes the only thing to keep you warm. I allow the drawling baritone of a squad of Canadian boys I know to let me have a glimpse into their good, smooth life. Through their voices in my head, I think of them listening to clever bands and sitting on nice benches along well-lit streets.
In Delhi, landlocked by vicious weather and violent histories, we live the way we talk. Our speech escapes us with sparks of anger embedded in our sentences. We punctuate suddenly, and often in curses, we turn our intonations—our n’s, our t’s, our ay’s—into sparring defence mechanisms. Conversation is had like fresh coils of metal springs nestled too close to one another, where one person jumps in before another finishes; we duel pointlessly about normal, everyday things.
We ravage every crevice of the city to stand up for our friends and find casual enemies to antagonize. We rely on the moments that breed laughter out of a bad day, love from an argument on the street. We become bolted in with one another in this unlikeable, specific way that we live, thinking we don’t deserve love because of how jagged our tempers make us. But we look for it everywhere and claim that no matter, we will give our lives for love.
In Delhi, one of the phrases for anger comes from how it feels. “Garam Khoon vaalay,” or “those with warm blood,” is how we point to those with the tendency whose tempers fly, those that articulate through stormy rage. I have been known for my garam khoon, for my appetite for confrontation. My need to aggressively wrestle with authority—like a lecherous policeman, an oppressive patriarch—has been discussed, depending on who mentions it, as a blessing or curse.
When I was at university, Illyas, the man who cooked my favourite kebabs, would joke that I should stand far from the tandoor. When I entered the shop to order, he would instruct the boys who worked in his shop to keep me far away from the burning grill, lest it heated up a suppressed, billowing mood stored inside me.
“Door rahiyay!” he would tease, chuckling, as I positioned my hands on my hips in mock indignation before rummaging in my pocket for change. “Stand far away! God knows, the heat from my tandoor may make your warm blood boil.”
But when Delhi’s anger is spoken about most often, it is the wrath of men. The rage of the city’s men is an urban legend across the country—tales of angry young boys taking lives over petty arguments, instances of rich men shooting a woman in the head because she wouldn’t serve them a drink—these are the tales we heard while growing up in our city ruled by the sanctioned, fragile turbulence of men. I have flared up often, at gangs of boys in cars that hooted at my sister, at Islamophobic uncles who tried to dictate who I could fall in love with and what I should do with my life. At a party in university, I shoved someone to a bad fall on his back when he tried to lock my friend in a room. On a road in broad daylight, I dug my feet into the ground, shouting into the face of a man who, after a minor scuffle, threatened to have me raped and killed, if I dared talk back to him or any other man.
Every time I lose my temper, I tremble to think I sound exactly like the blue-shirted man whom I chased away from the street. I sit, replaying the scenes in my head, listening to the insults about fucking mothers, threats of breaking bones that unfurl so easily from my mouth. What if all the edges of this city eventually bore inside me? What if fighting the toxicity and masculinity I endured in it caused me to turn into it myself?
But for each man I have seen fight with another over a woman or parking space, I have seen a woman exercise her rage to set a boundary. I cheered one day at the top of my voice for a group of girls who chased a large man away from their scared young classmate in the Delhi metro. I watched them sprint after him across a stalled station, their dupattas flying behind them like in a music video, their bejewelled slippers in their hands.
Several winters ago, in 2019, I collected everyday with thousands of young Indians on a main road in the city’s center. We were here to protest our governments latest attacks—on students, on Indian Muslims, on anyone that voiced their opinion against a brutal, fascist state. Under India’s new regime, mosques were brought down by vindictive Hindu men; rape threats were dealt out on the regular to journalists who raised their voice. During the week the city cracked into anti-Muslim pogroms, I watched, helpless, hearing of families abandoning their homes in fright, Hindu neighbours turning on their Muslim friends on a chilly winter night. After the pogroms, I spent my days walking through Delhi in scuffling anxiety, as if this was the last it time I was encountering it alive.
Even though the government had weakened me, at the protests, I witnessed hundreds of others it hadn’t. I saw the young rummaging spirits were furious with the knife brought to our country’s throat. We were led by young Muslim women, students and activists. They climbed onto cars, unafraid, to urge the rest of us into song. They headed marches to parliament, pushing past barricades in swarms.
“Modi, teri tanashahi nahi chalegi!” I heard them roar in coordination. “Modi, we will not let your dictatorship run!” When the students collectivized their tempers, the ground shook beneath us. Their anger was cleansing, pointed, and educational. Blanketed in it, I could see things clearly. It exposed the malice of the powerful; it showed me what was at stake.
I feel ignorant for doubting the rage of others around me when I was growing up. How silly, I thought, to wish for channels for tempers from people far away when all I had to do was look around. “Is gussay ka bhi koi matlab hai,” I remember a friend telling me on one of the days of the protests. “Stop it!” she scolded me, as I cried pitifully into my chai cup. “Look up! All this anger, it has a function. You’ll see.” As I watched the stage in front of us pile up with poetry and consolation, I decided to keep my head up, like she said. I resolved to stay angry as we were picked apart, all citizens of the one blasted republic, separated by caste, class and religion, torn apart and into pieces by a bloodthirsty state.
Despite its pitfalls for those of us with warm blood, that anger is called by its name is comforting. That the emotion is associated with fire, warmth, and heat shows that while it could be dangerous, it also has the potential to be restorative and real. That day at the protests, I realized what I may have always known. Even though it is censored throughout the world, even though women are told every day to halt their warm blood, anger, like fire, can clear the way.